Speculation on the Origins of Santa Claus, Part One: Saint Nicholas and Krampus

First, let me say that I’m no expert on any of this. All I have going for me is an internet connection and a penchant for procrastination. I also have a tendency to obsess over things that don’t really matter. Hence my seasonal interest in the origins of Santa Claus.

When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell me that Santa Claus was an Americanized version of Saint Nicholas. This made sense to a degree — at least linguistically — but it didn’t explain everything. For example, what was a fourth-century Greek bishop doing with a team of flying reindeer? And why did he keep trying to slide down chimneys? Weren’t there easier ways to give presents to good little girls and boys?

As it turns out, my grandfather was only telling a small part of the story. Yes, there was indeed a fourth-century bishop named Nicholas who was known for his generosity. And, yes, the Dutch corruption of his name into Sinterklaas evolved into today’s Santa Claus. But there’s also a lot more to the story.

Again, this is sheer speculation, but I’d describe Santa Claus as a cultural hybrid, a nexus of myths surrounding the winter season, a handful of characteristics that congealed over time into a single character.

One of the big mysteries that haunted me as a child wasn’t so much the logistical nightmare that must have been involved in leaving presents under every Christmas tree in the world in the span of a single night or even how Santa Claus managed to squeezed down chimney after chimney, but why he’d ever bother doing such a thing. After all, if everyone was expecting him, and he was going to be leaving us presents, then why didn’t we just leave our doors unlocked on Christmas Eve? It just didn’t make sense.

Unless, of course, there was something they weren’t telling us about Santa Claus. Like the fact that the business of sliding down chimneys is based on the Germanic myth of Krampus, the Grinch-like holdiay demon known for slithering down chimneys and stuffing children into burlap sacks.

Personally, I love this concept, because it says a lot about the culture that invented it. Instead of telling children to be good so that they’ll get a lot of presents or, at worst, find fossil fuels in their stockings, the Krampus myth gave parents the power to tell their children to be good lest a demon creep down the chimney, stuff them in a sack, and take them to hell.

I’m a little hazy on the details, but I also think I read somewhere that one variation on the Krampus myth involved fairies or elves who captured Krampus and forced him to be good, which explains his eventual move to bringing gifts to children in the dead of winter, and also most likely explains where Santa’s elves came from.

Today, there’s a Krampus-like figure in many countries throughout Europe. He goes by several names, including Knecht Ruprecht, Certa, Perchten, Black Peter, Schmutzli, Pelznickel, and Klaubauf; and he’s usual the counterpart to a Santa Claus figure.

But what about the fact that Santa Claus is always winking at people? And what about the reindeer? Okay, so the first of those two questions is just there to allow me to make my next point, and the answer to the second is a bit of a stretch. But you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to read about them…

Monkeys vs. Humans

I’ve long believed that monkeys are smarter than humans, and now I can prove it. Over the weekend, I heard a report on Marketplace Money about Yale researchers who had trained a capuchin monkey named Nick Nack to use money in order to figure out how the world economy ended up in the toilet. Among other things, the report noted that the researchers had tried to teach the monkey about branding, with very limited success:

“They offered him two kinds of cereal, the same in every way except one came in a container with a picture of a clover on it and the other had a picture of a moon on it. The cereal was also the same price. And it turned out the branding didn’t matter much to Nick Nack. He went for each about the same number of times.” — Marketplace Money

In other words, Nick Nack, who is a monkey, didn’t care what the package looked like. As long as the cereal was the same, he was happy to fork over his hard-earned cash.

Meanwhile, in the world of humans, Coca Cola is facing criticism for changing the design of its holiday cans. According to the Wall Street Journal, the American public is in such an uproar over Coca Cola’s latest holiday can, which features silvery polar bears against a white backdrop, that the company is “switching back to its time-honored red” barely a month after making the change:

“While the company has frequently rung in the holiday with special can designs, this was the first time it put regular Coke in a white can. Some consumers complained that it looked confusingly similar to Diet Coke’s silver cans. Others felt that regular Coke tasted different in the white cans. Still others argued that messing with red bordered on sacrilege.” — Wall Street Journal

My main concern here is with the “others” who felt that regular Coke tasted different in the white cans. Needless to say, Nick Nack (who, again, is a monkey) would not have made the same mistake.

Of course, if Nick Nack had any taste whatsoever, he’d probably spit out the Coke after his first sip and save his money for a good Malbec, but given the details we have, two things are clear:

  • You can change the packaging of a product, and monkeys won’t care.
  • You can do the same thing to humans, and we’ll go apeshit.

Which makes me think I should probably hire a monkey to manage my money. But since I don’t actually have any money, I’ll just have to settle for waiting on the coming ape revolution* to end all of our financial woes…

*Side note: Some people believe in the coming zombie apocalypse. Personally, I’m more of an ape revolution kind of guy. I guess I’m just an old romantic at heart.